Britons against World War I

Anti-war politician Keir Hardie addresses a protest in Trafalgar Square (Sunday August 2nd 1914)

By John Ellison in Britain:

Plunderers against plunderers

Tuesday 23rd December 2014

By Christmas 1914 the horrific nature of the war in Europe was clear but only a few brave voices resisted the patriotic fervour on both sides, writes John Ellison

At this time of year, thoughts stray to Christmas a century ago, precisely because of the horror and madness of the world war which by then had been widely predicted to be over, and which in fact had just begun.

After the justly celebrated labour movement anti-war demonstrations on August 2, Britain was swallowed up by patriotic fervour following the declaration of war two days later.

At the end of August, vivid, deliberately uncensored newspaper reports of severe damage to the British expeditionary force at Mons drew large numbers of volunteers into the army within days.

Freedom of speech and of access to information was quietly crucified by a combination of Defence of the Realm Acts, government censorship and xenophobic propaganda.

Yet in Glasgow the voice of socialist thinker-activist John Maclean, imprisoned for an anti-war speech made at this time, was not silenced. (Answering the rhetorical question “Why don’t you enlist?” he replied simply: “I have been enlisted for 15 years in the socialist army, and God damn all other armies.”)

In mid-September a piece by him appeared in the British Socialist Party’s paper Justice.

He wrote: “Even supposing Germany to blame, the motive force is not the ambitions of the Kaiser …but the profit of the plundering class of Germany. Colonial expansion was denied the Germans because the British, the Russians and the French had picked up most of the available ports of the world.

“What could the Germans do but build up an army and a navy that would hold its own against all comers? … Plunderers against plunderers, with the workers as pawns taking the murdering with right good will.”

The brutality of the bare casualty facts in those early months of the war numbs the mind and assaults the senses.

By the end of 1914, the Expeditionary Force ferried over to France in August had sustained 90,000 casualties, of which around a third were fatalities.

The people of colonial India, who had not been consulted about taking part in the war, had lost more than 2,000 soldiers by that date too.

Many thousands of wounded men were taken back across the Channel to hospitals. Most of Britain’s professional army in France was wiped out.

The British force had aided the much larger French army in denying the German forces a successful advance on Paris and in creating the long ragged line of the Western Front.

French losses — half a million. German losses — half a million.

Truth about the reality of the fighting was denied to the British people. Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty tells us that French losses of 300,000 men over 11 days in August were not reported in Britain until after the war’s end.

Unpublicised too were the comparable losses of ally Tsarist Russia — over 300,000 Russian troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner during one month.

Gung-ho First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote to his wife in November a letter she could have virtuously turned over to the police as unpatriotic. The letter included the observation: “What would happen … if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute!”

In Britain the new Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, who in 1898 had presided over the colonial mass killing in Sudan at Omdurman, both during and after the one-sided battle, was calling for huge numbers of volunteers, declaring their country needed them, while also telling the Cabinet that the war would last for three or four years.

The military killing machine’s achievements since the war’s outbreak — and its estimate of future requirements — were symbolised by falls in minimum height levels for recruits.

In August this was 5’8, by October it was 5’5, and soon after that it was down to 5’3.

Inevitably a major recruiting weapon was the shaming of those who shirked patriotism. It was not always effective.

The miners’ leader Robert Smillie, faced with one notorious recruiting poster which featured children asking their guilt-ridden civilian father what he had done in the “Great War” said his answer would be: “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”

But even the anti-war Herald, edited by George Lansbury and reduced from a daily to a weekly paper, became quiet about the war until December, while Labour MP and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, treated by the mainstream press as arrogantly anti-war, was actually both for and against it: a difficult position to defend without resorting to evasion and deception. So he resorted to evasion and deception.

Yet almost all of the Independent Labour Party’s national council, including Fenner Brockway, youthful editor of the Labour Leader, were anti-war. In October he wrote and dispatched letters to the German socialist leaders via neutral countries determined that positive contact should be established.

In Glasgow anti-war sentiments were strong among a local socialist leadership in which John Maclean was outstanding. In Bath Street, standing on a table on a Sunday evening towards the end of 1914, he spoke to a large and attentive gathering.

A witness later reported the power of the occasion to Maclean’s biographer. I quote: “The war, he told them, was not an accident. It was the continuation of the peaceful competition for trade and for markets already carried on between the powers before hostilities broke out … the main thing for them to know was that the real enemy was the employers, and that so long as … all the tools of wealth production were possessed by a small class of privileged people, then so long they would be slaves.”

Meanwhile, the radical liberal and mainly middle class Union of Democratic Control was set up in London to agitate against secret diplomacy and for the war’s early end.

In east London hundreds of women rallied around Sylvia Pankhurst’s Suffragette Federation and her anti-war paper The Woman’s Dreadnought – and around her Cost Price Restaurant, whose very title confronted profiteering at a time of rapidly rising prices.

Towards the end of December, Fenner Brockway’s October letter to German socialist leaders bore fruit. He received encouraging replies from Karl Liebknecht (who, to his eternal honour, had that month as a parliamentary deputy voted alone against war credits), Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. These confirmed — British socialists needed to hear it — the German socialist leaders’ antipathy to the war and their continued commitment to international socialism.

Then on Christmas Day and Boxing Day took place the spontaneous mass fraternisation between British and German soldiers from opposite trenches along the Western Front, potentially threatening an end to the conflict. Not surprisingly, Commander-in-Chief Sir John French (whose sister, Charlotte Despard remarkably had spoken against the war in Trafalgar Square on August 2, and was about to resume anti-war activity) forbade repetition.

A century ago, Germany was the underdog capitalist European country, pressing for parity with the British and French empires.

Today, with the United States as the world’s top dog country, and with Britain left with subservient ally status, the scramble for markets and to control resources, rulers and regions — with war as enforcer — goes on. The inseparability of capitalism and war is day by day murderously demonstrated.

The brave activism of Maclean, Brockway, Pankhurst and many others in Britain, and of their counterparts in Germany and elsewhere, reminds us of the other truth — that as long as capitalism and war continue, there can be no let-up in the struggle against both.

26 thoughts on “Britons against World War I

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  15. On July 15, 1915, some 200,000 coal miners in Wales went on strike, defying calls for the abolition of industrial action under wartime conditions.

    After the outbreak of the war, the working and living conditions of the working class deteriorated rapidly, with employers demanding extended working hours and higher productivity to meet the demand for both raw materials and equipment for the war. As the war continued, there were also steep increases in the cost of living, impacting most sharply on the working class. Industrial and civil unrest grew.

    The British Labour Party had called for an industrial truce within a month of the outbreak of war. In February 1915, 9,000 engineering workers in Glasgow went on strike. Worried about industrial unrest impacting on the war effort, the government called for a meeting with the trade union leaderships. These meetings resulted in the Treasury Agreements, signed in March 1915 by union leaders from a broad range of industries. These were agreements to abandon independent union rights and conditions and to halt all industrial disputes for the duration of the war. Only with this full collaboration of the unions was the government able to pursue its war policy.

    The industrial agenda was to ban strikes and lockouts, enforce compulsory arbitration and suspend restrictive trade practices, such as the requirement for skilled laborers to work on production in some industries. The Munitions Act, enacted in July 1915, built on this agenda, and broadened the terms of the original agreements to include all wartime industry. It outlawed strikes and lockouts and extended the power of the government to apply the act to any other work stoppages.

    In March 1915, the Miners’ Federation claim for a national wage increase to meet the rising costs of living was rejected by the government. This led to widespread unrest in South Wales.

    The government proclaimed that the mines came under the purview of the Munitions Act, thereby denouncing the strike as unlawful and requiring the dispute to go to compulsory arbitration. Angered by and in defiance of the government’s claim of illegality, the miners continued with their strike. Government figures, including the Minister of Munitions Lloyd George, sought to intervene in the dispute. A deal was struck with union representatives, when coal mine owners turned to government officials to resolve the dispute. The miners’ claim for pay increases was met; however the Munitions Act was used to place the mines under state control, when unrest broke out again in 1916.


  16. On August 20, 1915, the German Reichstag, or parliament, voted for new war credits to fund military operations in the First World War, which had broken out a year before. Only one vote was cast against the credits, that of Karl Liebknecht, the SPD leader who adhered to the revolutionary wing of the German social democratic party led by Rosa Luxemburg.

    On August 4, 1914, the SPD had betrayed the program of socialist internationalism, for which it had previously fought, supporting the imperialist war efforts of its “own” government with the outbreak of the global conflagration.

    In the SPD caucus in August 1915, held before the Reichstag vote, 36 deputies voted to oppose the war budget. When the vote in the chamber of the Reichstag came, three of them voted with the majority, while 32 left the chamber, with Liebknecht alone registering a “no” vote, publicly defying party discipline and the war policies of the autocratic ruler of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

    Under the pressure of a mounting social polarization and growing opposition to the war in the working class, the SPD was increasingly divided into three factions: the right-wing majority led by Scheidemann, Heine, and Sudekum, which supported the suppression of the class struggle during the war, and uncritically adhered to the government line; the center, led by Haasse, Kautsky, and Bernstein, which criticized the war in a pacifist and centrist fashion, but opposed any revolutionary struggle against it; and the revolutionary left led by Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Franz Mehring.

    Eduard David, the official spokesman of the SPD majority, delivered a speech to the Reichstag outlining complete support for a German victory over its “enemies”, and an ensuing piece dictated by the Kaiser. Vorwarts, the publication of the centrists led by Kautsky, noted that David’s speech was “in no way distinguishable from those of the capitalist orators.”

    In the debate, Liebknecht demanded that government representatives detail their attitude to the call for immediate peace, without annexations. Secretary of State V. Jagow replied, “I believe I shall meet the wishes of the great majority of the House if I decline to answer the question of the member, Dr. Liebknecht, at the present time as inopportune.”

    Liebknecht responded, “That is concealing the capitalistic policy of conquest. The answer of the Secretary of State is a confession of a policy of annexation. The people want peace.”


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  19. Monday 4th January 2016

    Class Cohesion versus Spurious Patriotism:

    A Straight Talk to British Workers

    by Fred Bramley

    (British Radical History Group, £2)

    DURING the recent parliamentary debate on whether Britain should bomb Syria, jingoistic arguments were advanced similar to those made in 1914 at the beginning of the first world war — “Britain stands firm with its allies,” “British forces and weapons are the best in the world” and “We must act in defence of our country” among them.

    Sadly, when WWI broke out in 1914 the British labour movement, despite having opposed war at the TUC Congress in Manchester a year earlier following a loudly applauded speech by a German delegate calling for “brotherly co-operation if we want to combat modern capitalism,” largely fell behind their government and supported the war.

    Fred Bramley, a member of the Independent Labour Party and organiser of the Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association, a socialist and internationalist, wrote this pamphlet with his general secretary Alex Gossip in 1915 to counter this unprincipled betrayal of pre-war trade union policy.

    It was discovered in the TUC archives by researcher Kevin Morgan. Hitherto overlooked, it is a record of an outstanding socialist trade unionist, a cabinet-maker by trade, who was elected in 1917 as the TUC’s sole full-time official.

    In 1924 he led an official delegation to Russia, speaking at the sixth Congress of All-Russian Trade Unions with AA Purcell and Ben Tillett on the platform with him.

    He maintained the importance of finding common ground across national boundaries, refusing to heed the scares and atrocity stories that workers’ enemies use to divide them.

    This excellent pamphlet reminds us, a century later, of the continual struggle we have to wage against an unscrupulous ruling class and their drive to war.

    Review by Jean Turner


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  21. 100 years ago: British parliament introduces conscription
    British WWI propaganda poster

    On January 24, 1916, the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Military Service Act, a bill to introduce conscription into the army for single men between 18 and 41 who did not have dependents. Dubbed the “Bachelors Bill,” it was subsequently passed by the House of Lords and entered into law on January 28, having received royal assent.

    Under conditions of prolonged trench warfare on the Western Front following the initial battles of World War I in late 1914, and ongoing heavy casualties, a discussion had developed in British ruling circles over the necessity to boost the numbers of the armed forces.

    In October, the “Derby Scheme,” named after Lord Derby, the Director-General of Recruiting, was introduced. The scheme involved calling up military-aged men to “attest” to their willingness to serve with a view to subsequently enlisting them in the army. It was widely viewed as a failure, with some 2 million men failing to present themselves for “attestation.”

    The Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith had resisted calls for the introduction of conscription because of “the absence of general assent,” i.e., the widespread opposition to the proposal. A host of pacifist, religious, liberal and working class organizations had vocally opposed the prospect of enforced conscription from the outset of the war.

    In late 1915, the radical Independent Labour Party held meetings throughout working class areas on the slogan “Stop Conscription.” In September 1915, the Trades Union Congress had passed a resolution opposing conscription. A Labour Party national conference in January opposed conscription by 1,766,000 to 219,000 votes. There were other displays of opposition, including a pledge by the South Wales miners federation to strike if the bill passed.

    Expressing the fear of widespread opposition in the working class, the bill included a number of exemptions for ill-health or business difficulties. It also included an exemption for conscientious objectors, but they were to be hauled before a military tribunal which would adjudicate their cases. Conscription did not cover Ireland, where refusal to fight for British imperialism was a well-nigh universal sentiment.

    Labour and the union leaders played the key role in suppressing opposition to the bill. They supported the Asquith government and held positions in its cabinet. Three Labour MPs who threatened to withdraw from the government remained when Asquith pledged not to introduce conscription for married men, a measure that was subsequently introduced in May.

    Colonel Charles Repington, writing in the Times, the principal organ of the British establishment, hailed the role of the Labour Party, declaring, “we certainly owe much to the good sense and patriotism of Labour which has realised that there is no other means of reinforcing our heroes at the front adequately except by the passage of the Bill into law.”


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